UKVI usually takes a few weeks or months to decide on visa applications. If the person has a passport or other travel document, they may want to leave the UK before a decision has been made. This could be for a vacation, to see family and friends who live abroad, or to do business in another country.
Still, even if you have a good reason to want to travel outside of the UK, the short answer to the question “Can I travel while my visa application is being processed?” is usually “NO.” There are very few exceptions to this rule, though.
Even though you haven’t been asked to give up your passport, that doesn’t mean you’re free to move abroad. This is because paragraph 34K of the Immigration Rules says that if a decision has not been made on an application and the applicant travels outside the Common Travel Area (CTA), “their application will be treated as withdrawn.” This is true if you have applied for either further or indefinite leave to stay. The UK, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, and the Republic of Ireland are all mentioned in the CTA.
When applying for a visa, it’s not very clear that there are limits on where you can go. The rule is also not always followed, and UKVI may not even know about an absence unless the candidate tells them about it in a later application. Still, there are major risks to travelling outside of the CTA, such as being turned away at the UK border. Below, we’ll look at the rules for travelling outside of the country, as well as the times when these rules don’t apply.
Rules on overseas travel with a pending immigration application
If you travel outside the CTA before a decision is made on your application to stay or settle in the UK, UKVI will automatically treat your application as withdrawn. In turn, if your application is withdrawn because you have used your passport to travel abroad while awaiting a decision, you will no longer have an application pending with UKVI. As such, depending on whether or not your previous visa remains valid, this will not only determine your right to re-enter the UK, but also your ability to make a fresh in-country application.
If you applied for further or indefinite leave to remain prior to expiry of your previous visa, but still had existing leave when you left the UK, known as extant leave, unless the visa expiry date has since passed, this leave will still be valid. In these circumstances, you should be allowed to return to the UK, but you would need to file a fresh visa application.
In contrast, if you applied for further leave prior to expiry of your previous visa and transferred onto what is known as section 3C leave, because your visa expired while awaiting a decision, your section 3C leave will have expired on the date that you left the UK. This means that you will be refused re-entry back into the UK, as you no longer have a valid visa, and you will also be out of time to renew your application to UKVI for further or indefinite leave to remain. The purpose of section 3C of the Immigration Act 1971 is to prevent anyone who has made an in-time application to extend their leave from becoming an overstayer pending a decision on their application. However, this leave will automatically lapse if you travel outside the UK during that decision-making period.
If you have an outstanding visa application and travel outside the CTA, that application will not provide you with any right to re-enter the UK to receive a decision. This is because the application will be automatically treated as withdrawn. This means that you will probably be refused entry to the UK unless you are allowed to re-enter with a different type of leave, for example, if your existing leave has not yet expired or if you have made, and have been successfully granted, another immigration application before returning to the UK.
The following example clearly illustrates how travelling outside the UK can cause serious and potentially very costly problems for an applicant:
Maria, a Philippine national, was originally granted permission to live and work in the UK on the basis of her marriage to Derek, a British citizen. Maria filed an extension application on 1 September and her original grant of leave expired on 4 September, such that Maria was benefitting from section 3C leave. As Maria needed to travel to the Philippines, she left the UK on 1 October. However, when Maria tried to re-enter, the UK Border Force Officer refused her entry, explaining that leaving the UK had withdrawn her extension application. Maria was also refused entry to the UK as a visitor because she was clearly not a visitor. Maria was therefore forced to return to the Philippines and file a new partner application from outside the UK.
Rules on overseas travel with a pending British citizenship application
If you have made an application to naturalise as a British citizen, the rules relating to travel are different. Generally speaking, applicants can travel outside of the CTA while awaiting a decision. This is because, to be eligible to apply for citizenship by way of naturalisation, you must already have indefinite leave to remain. In turn, with the grant of indefinite leave, and provided you do not remain outside the UK for any longer than 2 years ‘and’ maintain an intention to settle in the UK, you are permitted to travel freely in and out of the country. Further, citizenship applications are not actually made under the Immigration Rules.
Equally, if you have submitted an application to settle under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), your application should not be treated as automatically withdrawn if you travel outside the CTA. This is based on the most recent caseworker guidance for EUSS applications, which states that an application made under Appendix EU (which sets out the rules relating to these applications) will not be treated as automatically withdrawn if an applicant travels outside the CTA before the application has been decided.
There is, of course, a great deal to be said about proposals for reform in the context of permissible travel pending decisions on all other immigration applications. Despite all the recent changes to the UK’s Immigration Rules, it still appears to be a rather archaic system when individuals who are desperate to travel outside of the CTA have to choose between maintaining their lawful immigration status and visiting loved ones, or simply getting on with their jobs and lives as they would normally. The exceptions to the travel requirement in the context of naturalisation and EUSS applications show that applicants can still have the intention to remain and live in the UK, while travelling for family or work reasons during the typically lengthy processing periods. Such applicants can also be easily contacted by UKVI.
However, as the Rules currently stand, applicants awaiting decisions on further or indefinite leave applications must exercise patience and await a decision before leaving the CTA. It is therefore important that travel plans are put on hold once a visa application has been filed from inside the UK or that applicants are fully aware of the potential risks before departure.
Can I cancel and re-submit my visa application at a later stage?
If you have submitted an application for further or indefinite leave to remain and would like to withdraw that application, either because you have to urgently travel overseas or for any other reason, you can ask UKVI to cancel, or withdraw, your application online.
You will be entitled to a refund of the immigration health surcharge paid if you cancel before a decision has been made by UKVI about your application. However, whether or not you will be entitled to a refund of the application fee will depend on what stage your application is at when you cancel. Your fee should still be refunded, provided you have not yet attended an UKVCAS appointment and enrolled your biometric information. Equally, if you were not required to attend an appointment in the first place, because you were eligible to use the IDV app to prove your identity, you can again cancel your application and should receive a fee refund, provided you have not yet uploaded your documents.
Importantly, however, whether or not you can subsequently re-submit the same application having left the UK is by no means guaranteed. If your existing leave is due to expire or has already expired, you may lose your permission to stay in the UK. This means that you would need to make a fresh application from outside the UK before being able to return. In some cases, by leaving the UK, this could also impact your eligibility, for example, this could break your continuous residence period for the purpose of an indefinite leave application.
If you make a decision to withdraw a visa application, you cannot stop the cancellation once this request has been received by UKVI, so it is always important to seek expert legal advice from an immigration specialist before deciding whether to cancel your application. Equally, advice should always be sought before risking taking a trip abroad while awaiting a decision on your application. In this way, all options can be explored to protect your position, including paying to expedite any decision using UKVI’s priority services.
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